Dec 04

They Lived in the Outer West 2- Robin Lamplough

Do you remember the building of the Inanda Dam? Planning began in the 1970's but, because the affected communities had not been consulted, construction started only in 1984.  These events led to the discovery of new information about people who had lived in the Outer West. Local archaeologists knew that there were important sites in the Mngeni valley that would be flooded.  The Durban Archaeological Society decided to take action.  They moved into the area to learn what they could before it was too late. 

The result was that we know a little more about the people who lived there many centuries ago. The investigation was hurried and incomplete.  Instead of the careful sifting usually done in such circumstances, they had to use a bulldozer to clear strips of land.  But they uncovered enough to establish a connection with other more thoroughly investigated Iron Age Sites in the Transvaal and Mozambique.  They also uncovered a village site they believed to be about a thousand years old.
Until the middle of the 20th century we had very limited information about black settlement in KwaZulu-Natal.  It depended largely upon oral tradition, recorded in the colonial period by officials and missionaries. The work of archaeologists from about 1960 showed that this oral tradition did not go back far enough.


Archaeologists have shown that there have been black communities living in eastern South Africa for well over ten centuries.  These people were farmers who kept livestock and dogs.  They made clay pots and used iron for tools and weapons.  The experts believe they had migrated from equatorial Africa.  They introduced the Iron Age to South Africa.  We do not know what language these people spoke.  Language experts, however can show that the languages of Africa south of the Sahara are all related.  Because their words for people are all similar to the Nguni word abantu, the experts labelled these languages 'Bantu languages'  Today scholars prefer the word 'Isintu-speaking' to describe the people who use these languages. In southern Africa, the distribution of Isintu speaking communities always coincides with evidence of an Iron Age culture.  Because of this, scholars believe that the people who brought the use of iron to the region were all Isintu speakers.  They were not yet Nguni or Sotho people but certainly they were there ancestors.


The discoveries made on the Inanda Dam site in the early 1980's appeared to fit into this picture.  Mike Moon, an Outer West resident who was then the chairman of the Durban Archaeological Society headed the drive to investigate the site.  He was also one of the investigating team.  They found evidence of sorghum and pumpkin cultivation.  They also found proof that these early settlers had kept cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. Also uncovered were grain storage pits, some of them lined with stones.  In some of the pits were human remains, often stored in clay pots. These pots showed techniques of decoration that made them similar to pottery from East Africa.  A number of the human skulls discovered had sharpened teeth. One clearly significant find was of a headless skeleton  nearby.  The hands and feet of the skeleton had been securely tied.  Was this evidence of the execution of a wrongdoer?  Or were these the remains of someone offered as a sacrifice?
Without further information it is impossible to do anything more than speculate.


Of particular interest was the discovery of grindstones with narrow grooves in them.  These are typical of places where iron-working took place.  In addition the team found charcoal and furnace slag, making it clear that there had been a well- established iron industry there.  All this detail helps to throw light on some later developments.  When the Boers arrived in Natal in the 1830s, they claimed farms. The man who was granted land at Botha's Hill, Hans Potgieter, named his farm Assagay Kraal. Why would he do that unless he had identified the African occupants of the land as spear makers?  There is further evidence that the iron working tradition continued for a long time. The curator of the Pinetown museum, Hazel England, has a record of a visit to the museum from a teacher in the Valley of a Thousand Hills whose grandfather used to manufacture spearheads in the 1950s and early 1960s.  The iron-works he used were also said to be still in existence. Unfortunately all subsequent attempts to contact the teacher have been unsuccessful.

By Robin Lamplough

1 ping

  1. Useful links about the history of Inanda Dam the communities that once lived there | eNanda

    […] Robin Lamplough. They lived in the Outer West. Episode 2. History Buffs. History and archaeology of the settlements now flooded by the Inanda Dam. http://www.historybuffs.co.za/?p=1592 […]

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